Why an American loves k-drama
I am an American with an insatiable appetite for romantic drama. My quest for ever-more-complex geometries of love—you’ve heard of love triangles, but have you heard of love pentagrams?—has lead me from medium to medium, country to country, and after a fifteen-year journey I think I have at last found the frontier of romantic drama in the modern world.
Let me start at the beginning. When I was ten I got my hands on my first romantic movie: Just Like Heaven. It was not what I’d call a good movie. Reese Witherspoon plays the wandering wraith of a doctor trapped in a coma, and Mark Ruffalo plays a lonely man who can by some romcom-type magic see and speak with Witherspoon’s apparition. I loved every frame of it. I didn’t understand why all three of the friends I invited over to watch it with me—in serial; I watched this movie many times—resented me for subjecting them to it. They suspected I’d made them the butt of some joke.
I went through phases obsessed with early-2000s American chic flics, French art house films, Malaysian web serials, Spanish historical stuff, and Meiji-era Japanese literature. I’m not listing the other stuff because it would take a lot of time. It would bore you. The point is I explored the terrain of romantic conflict for a long time before deciding that there is nothing in the world like what Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Company airs every Tuesday at 9:30PM Korean Standard Time.
I will address the Bollywood fans momentarily.
For the sake of discussion I will separate melodrama into two types: A and B. The distinction exists only inside of you. Let me clarify. Type B is drama that makes you feel something in your numb heart. Do you ever daydream a dramatic event that hasn’t happened and may not just to try on the feeling, like the birth of your child, the death of a loved one, or quitting your job in a snap reaction to a workplace slight? That’s what I mean: maximum drama, but you still suspend disbelief. It gets your blood pumping. Think Revolutionary Road. Think Old Boy.
That the audience must feel the drama implies constraints on Type B stories which even skilled writers struggle to defy. Everyone’s tolerance for writer’s-room mania is different, but I think most people draw the line before telenovela-type absurdities like characters dying and returning to life, or suddenly whipping out superpowers that don’t follow from the donnée. After crossing the believability threshold drama becomes metafiction. You’re no longer watching because of your connection to the characters or events, but rather to see what the writers will do. It’s like a rhetorical duel between viewer and writer where the viewer defies the writer to tie up their unwieldy plot. Can those bookish typists in that conference room coalesce thirty-seven frayed story threads into one conclusion with only five episodes left? Watch to find out! That's the sort of media I call Melodrama Type A, and I hope it’s not controversial that I classify most Bollywood romdrams under this label. My point today is instead about Melodrama Type B.
K-Drama is unique for straddling the line between types A and B. The genre’s gamut is such that whatever a person’s patience for writers is, there’s a k-drama that will demand exactly that amount of their patience and reward them with a roller coaster of emotion. I am of course only interested in romance, so that’s the scope of this next comment: k-drama is also unique for its unrivaled loyalty to a single plot.
Anyone who’s watched daytime dramas from any country knows by heart the plot I’m talking about. There is a woman lead who suffers a chronic missing element in her life, which on the surface is something like money, a job, or a man to pretend to be her husband so she can rent his spare room for cheap without her family and friends gossiping about her cohabitating in with an unmarried man (yes, that’s real, and yes, I watched all sixteen episodes). Starring alongside Woman Lead are the first and second man leads. First Man Lead has some redeemable traits but is usually unpleasant and Woman Lead must spend time with him due to (often laboriously contrived) logistical constraints. He possesses the money, job, or lease she needs. Second Man Lead has a high EQ and inside connections with Woman Lead’s family. Fans often prefer this man. It’s a condition. It has a name: Second Lead Syndrome. In the end First Man Lead always wins Woman Lead, and I do mean to phrase it that way, with the man as the subject of the sentence and woman the direct object. K-Drama is not egalitarian.
Even when dramas step away from these tropes—e.g. in Reply 1994 it’s First Man Lead who has the (basically incestuous) inroads with Woman Lead’s family, and in Because This is My First Life, Second Man Lead is relevant only for a brief subplot about how maybe he’s a wrench murderer (yes, wrench)—they still play with them. Viewers describe the dramas to each other in terms of how they spin the canonical plot. A friend described Itaewon Class to me as a gender flip of the standard love triangle, to give you a sense of how aware viewers are of their own expectations for the genre.
Imagine going to the theater for a superhero origin story and then one hour into the one-and-a-half-hour runtime no one’s stumbled into superpowers or even a moral conviction. That’s how I’d feel if I got three episodes into a k-drama and couldn’t identify the love triangle.
I believe k-drama’s dominance in modern romance comes from both its dedication to this love triangle plot and the fact that the stories take place in Korea. In order for any kind of love geometry to emerge, people must develop one-sided love, nurture it and maintain it for a long time even when it is hopeless. A Korean setting makes this believable to Americans even in 2021, if for no other reason than that we don't know how Korea operates and can't disprove the claim that Koreans do that.
If Americans remade a k-drama shot-for-shot in Seattle it wouldn’t make sense. Americans, if you’ll forgive me a generalization, do not hold their tongues on issues of love and sex. Try, just try, to imagine two American adults who are single, thirsty, and hot for each other and everyone knows it, but they do nothing. Neither of them proposes a date. Neither of them brings up the sexual tension. For years the tension builds until it consumes both of their lives yet there is nothing preventing them from releasing that tension except hesitation. Nothing about their match up is taboo, either. They are similar in age and cultural background. They belong to the same economic class and work at different places in different fields. Their overlap of social networks is minimal. If your attempt to imagine these hypothetical people suffering in silence succeeds, your imagination outshines mine. I can’t do it. And that’s because in America no one cares about what you do. First of all most American adults don’t even have a social network. They’ve got, like, one friend, so who’s going to know if they get rejected or sleep with a new person every day? Everyone is alienated from everyone else so there are no social stakes.
But Korea is different. I am about to comment on Korean culture to expand on that, but I want to first say I am not Korean and have never been to Korea. My research for this post involved signing up to the language exchange app Tandem and offering to help people practice their English in exchange for telling me a little bit about their daily life. The following is my understanding synthesized from their stories: Unlike Americans, Koreans pay attention to each other. Whatever they do, their grandparents and twice-removed cousins find out somehow. The elder’s grip on the youth is tight and chalk-dry, and it has many tendrils, of which the web of gossip is only one. If you watch a few of these k-dramas, you’ll pick up on a (to Americans) inexplicable fetish for First Love, and it's my understanding this exists the real Korea to a lesser degree. Where in America we tell our youth that their first serious romance is a doomed training exercise, a young Korean person might fear that First Love is irreplaceable, that all loves after the first diminish in significance like a harmonic series. It raises the stakes of an early romance to a fever pitch and predisposes them to self-doubt and avoidant coping mechanisms in the face of small obstacles, because once they fall in love that’s it. There’s no going back to the innocence of the before times.
In real life these ideas are shit, instruments of the powers that be to oppress to the free spirits of the young, but in drama they are so juicy oh my god. As a foreigner I see these stories as the struggle of young and vulnerable people to find someone they can open up to in an Orwellian dystopia of control. While on the surface Americans see eight episodes without even holding hands and ask when the fuck something’s going to happen, what’s at stake for the characters is whether they can ever be open and honest with a partner (remember, in dramaland they believe they’ve only got one shot). Their conformity to gender roles in the courting stages is like Offred probing Offglen in the Handmaid’s Tale to see whether she’s safe to breathe around: they’re undercover, toeing the party line until they know it’s safe to stop.
The backdrop of overt patriarchy elevates the social stakes, while the PG limitations of the broadcast minimize the mortal stakes. There’s often an economic class difference between Woman Lead (who is poor) and First Man Lead (who is rich), but in all the dramas I’ve watched the mortal aspects of poverty are never illustrated. No poor character is ever loses neural signal to their bowels over a herniated disk that a rich person could have just gotten physical therapy or surgery to fix. Nor does one ever engage in a self-destructive escapism, at least not beyond what’s “cute,” like a drunk dad who Woman Lead tucks under a blanket when they collapse on the couch. K-Drama takes poverty and other heavy issues a la carte, creating a world in which class differences and societal problems are just juicy trivia.
This is not unique to k-drama. Most addictive romance genres leverage this sort of social setting. Americans crave it so much they invent patriarchal cultures in which to set their romances, loosely based on existing ones. Amish Romance is ostensibly set it in Amish society but it’s written and read only by evangelical Christians. That’s an extreme example, but if you browse the romance isle in a book store you’ll notice most of their settings predate the idea of “women having a separate existence from men.” In theory writers could achieve the same stakes with a fictional matriarchy, but I think most audiences would assume they were trying to pull off some allegorical point, and that would distract from the story.
So here is the power that k-drama holds for Americans that none of those other genres wield, even though you could make strong arguments that historical romance literature—both set in past times and written in past times—has superior storytelling and craft: it’s plausible. K-Drama takes place over there, far away, in a place none of us understand, but in the present day. There is an element of “real people are experiencing a less dramatized version of these events, right now” that potentiates the drama. In real life there is not (I assume, and hope) a pattern of CEOs falling in love with their lowest-level new hires, or sudden revelations that one’s love interest was a forgotten childhood friend, but there are people in Korea who hold crushes close to their heart for years, conflicted all the while. That is fascinating.
K-Drama asymptotically approaches the golden chalice of melodrama, a perfect balance between over-the-top plot, unirony, and for foreign viewers, total ambiguity about where the cultural logic ends and the melodrama logic starts. In my experience there is always a tradeoff between drama and immersion that limits what's possible, a sort of Heisenberg Principle of drama: you can be over-the-top or you can be immersive, but not both. The mastery is in balance. Some day I hope a fiction master proves this boundary doesn't exist, creates a melodrama that makes its viewers forget about the fourth wall, that draws them in heart and mind and squeezes them through a grinder of internal turmoil that changes them forever. For now though, I think k-drama is the frontier.